Being tested without being tetchy - 1 Peter 4:12-19
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Dr D A Carson tells the story of a medical doctor, a former missionary, who was appointed as an elder of his local church. Some time later he had an affair, divorced his wife, abandoned his children and separated himself from any form of biblical Christianity. Of course, countless attempts were made to rehabilitate him but they all failed.
Dr Carson then went on to say that the most thoughtful assessment of the whole sorry mess came some three years later, from one of the leaders in the church. He suggested that this doctor, who came from a Christian home and had done all the ‘right’ things, had never had to make a decision that cost him anything. Everything was too easy; at every point he had been supported and praised. Even his missionary career was bound up with his own speciality interests in medicine. Then, when some troubles opened up in his marriage (as they do in every marriage at one time or another) and an attractive alternative presented herself, this doctor had no moral centre on which to depend. He had never, for the sake of Christ, taken a decision that cost him something; and he wasn’t about to start now.
That story is tragic but nor surprising and sadly that kind of story can be multiplied tenfold. So here is the question: How does a Christian develop the kind of moral centre Carson talks about, such that whatever may come their way, they don’t lose their way? The passage tonight shows us how, through what could be called ‘good suffering’, God provides just that. So let’s take a look at this passage under three headings.
First, God decreed suffering-v 19. Here is the climax of the passage which is the key to unlocking the passage, ‘So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.’
The category of suffering is a very broad one and covers a wide range of human experience. One of the temptations for those who are religiously inclined is to make sure that their theology is so watertight it allows for no loose ends-everything has to be explained. This goes for the question of suffering. Some, in an attempt to exonerate God of even a hint of moral responsibility when it comes to suffering say, ‘It is never God’s will for us to suffer; and if we do then it must be because of Satan or our lack of faith. God is doing his best but even for him some things are beyond his control-like suffering.’ But the Book of Job, let alone a whole host of other Biblical texts, nails that nonsense on the head. While God is sovereign over all things- including the activity of Satan, he nonetheless may permit suffering, and not all suffering is to be thought of in terms of ‘desert’ or ‘lack of faith’ for none of these things applied to Job.
On the other hand, there are those who, for the same motive wishing to defend God against being weak, come perilously close to saying whatever suffering there is, is God’s will pure and simple. But this is to make God, say, to be the author or Auschwitz, which is nigh on blasphemous. While it is true that all things come within God’s sovereign sway, with God ‘working all things to the God for those who love him’, Scripture underscores human responsibility, including responsibility for inflicting suffering like that of the Nazis. So while the Jesus and the cross was according to God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge, it was the Jewish leaders with the help of the Gentile leaders that were responsible for the dirty deed, according to Peter in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:23. Things are a little more nuanced than some people suppose.
And yet, in verse 19 Peter does say that there is a kind of suffering which is ‘according to God’s will’.
In order to pinpoint a bit more accurately what this kind of suffering is which is according to God’s will, it might be helpful to contrast it with suffering for those things which are not according to his will, that is his moral will. And what that is we see in verse 15, ‘If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.’ As we saw in chapter 2 God has ordained ruling structures in the world in order to punish wrongdoing- to legitimately inflict punishment on those who break the law. So as odd as it may sound, it is God’s will that those who break his moral will against other in society should suffer for it and he has given ruling authorities the power and the responsibility to make sure that happens. But a Christian should not be suffering for those kinds of things: murder, stealing, criminality or ‘meddling’. Now what on earth does Peter mean by ‘meddling’ which Christians should avoid? One writer describes it as, “Censuring the behaviour of outsiders on the basis of claim to a higher morality, interfering in family relationships, fomenting domestic discontent and discord or tactless attempts at conversion.” In other words, it is the crass moral put down of those who aren’t Christians, always being censorious and high and mighty which if pushed to the nth degree causes resentment and unrest, especially amongst families. Sure, if we have opportunity to speak into situations with God’s Word we are to do so, but not in a ‘meddling’ kind of way do you see?
If that is the kind of suffering we are not to be associated with, what is the kind we are to consider to be good and decreed by God? It is there in verse 16, ‘However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed.’ It is suffering for being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ that Peter has in mind as being according to God’s will. Some have suggested that Peter is taking up a label others applied to the followers of Christ, ‘Christians’, which was a term of contempt like ‘Fundamentalist’, ‘Puritan’- or even those ‘Evangelicals’-which at one time was a theological swear word. And no one likes name calling, you feel embarrassed about it and will tend to repudiate such a label. ‘Don’t’, says Peter, ‘embrace it, don’t be ashamed of being known in this way, take it as a badge of honour’ for reasons which will be become obvious in a moment.
So the kind of suffering decreed by God is that which is specifically suffering for being a Christian believer.
Which leads on to our second heading, ‘good producing suffering.’ In what ways can suffering for being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ ever be conceived as producing that which is ‘good’?
We are given a clue in verse 12 where Peter speaks of a ‘fiery ordeal that has come upon you to test you’. Peter is picking up something which he said at the beginning of the letter in chapter 1verses 7-8, about trials which are designed to prove the genuineness of your faith which is of greater worth than gold which perishes even though refined by fire.’ You see, God loves his treasure, namely, Christian believers, so much so that he will not only polish up that treasure so that it looks great, but will refine it so that it is great.
This is how C. S Lewis describes God’s design into making us holy as he is holy: ‘When a man turns to Christ and seems to be getting on pretty well (in the sense that some of his bad habits are now corrected) he often feels that it would now be natural if things went fairly smoothly. When troubles come along- illness, money troubles, new kinds of temptation he is disappointed. These things, he feels, might have been necessary to rouse him and make him repent in his bad old days; but why now? Because God is forcing him on, or up, to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us.’ Do you see? Peter has been telling us exactly what God intends to make of us- a holy temple, a royal priesthood a holy nation- little Christ’s if you will, reflecting something of his goodness to the world.
The notion of Christians being refined also lies behind verse 17 and 18, ‘For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Now when Peter speaks here of judgement amongst God’s family, it is not in terms of condemnation, rather it is to be understood in terms of evaluation- a sifting, sorting out the authentic from the inauthentic, like when we say that an art dealer ‘judges’ between a genuine Renoir and a copy. That is what is going on now in the church through hardship. Profession of faith is one thing, purified faith something else. This is how God establishes a moral centre in us and exposes whether we have a moral centre at all like the missionary I mentioned at the beginning. But what this judgement of Christians in the present does have in common with the judgement of non-Christians in the future, is that both involve evaluating what we have made of our lives-is it for God or is it for self? Also both involve suffering. The difference is that whereas for the believer the suffering is creative, as we are put under pressure we rely more and more on Christ as so become more and more like him, for the unbeliever, the suffering they will receive will only be punitive.
Of her experience in the dark days of the Soviet Union when many Christians were imprisoned for their faith, one Russian believer wrote: ‘My first fifteen-day sentence taught me a great deal about myself. In such a situation you see your good points and bad points very clearly. You find out where your weaknesses are. Persecution can be compared to a photographic developer. When the film is immersed in the developer, an image appears. When a Christian encounters persecution, his character becomes evident. Our church quickly learned who was ready for persecution and who wasn’t’.
But not only is such suffering good because it refines us to make us more like Christ, it is evidence that we are united to Christ, v 13, ‘But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.’ The identification between the risen and ascended Christ and his people is such that their sufferings are counted as his sufferings. Do you remember what the ascended Christ said to Saul on the Road to Damascus as he was throwing Christians left right and centre into jail? ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’ He was persecuting Christians, but in so far as they are one with Jesus it was tantamount to persecuting him.
Helen Roseveare was a Christian British medical doctor who served more than twenty years in Congo, Africa. In 1964 a revolution overwhelmed the country. She and her co-workers were thrown into five and a half months of unbelievable brutality and torture. For a moment she thought that God had forsaken her, but then she was overwhelmed with a sense of his presence, and she records that it was as if God was saying to her: “Twenty years ago you asked me for the privilege of being a missionary, the privilege of being identified with me. This is it. Don’t you want it? This is what it means: These are not your sufferings, they are mine. All I ask of you is the loan of your body.’”’ So closely identified is the risen Saviour with his people, so bound up is he with their welfare and they with his purposes that when they suffer for the faith their sufferings count for something-it’s all part of the sign that his kingdom is growing-a kingdom which is always accompanied with difficulty and opposition. That is why Peter says we should rejoice now because one day we shall be overjoyed when Christ returns for then we shall actually see that is has all been worthwhile.
Finally, what is the godly response to suffering? Well, there are a number of responses which are littered throughout the passage.
We are called not to be surprised when it happens v 12. This is what we have signed up to as people of the cross. Also we are called to rejoice, v 13 because we participate on Christ’s sufferings and that we do so gladly is a sign that we are converted. At least if you are being insulted for being a Christian and not just a pain-a meddler’ at least the world (and the devil for that matter) has recognised you are different and worth a dubbing. You should worry if you aren’t in some measure getting it in the neck for being a believer because that might just show that you are not acting all that different, you appear to be more of a citizen of this world rather than an foreigner. Thirdly, you are to realise that you are blessed, v14 because the Spirit of glory rests on you, marking you out as his and giving you strength to endure. Maybe Peter had in mind the final beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount when he write this: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ It is the false prophets that people like not the true ones. That is pure 1 Peter isn’t it?
Yes, we are not to be surprised to be hassled for being believers, yes, we should rejoice, yes, we should realise we are blessed- in a privileged state which is the meaning of ‘blessed’, but the one thing we must do if we are to endure and excel is what Peter finally says in verse 19, ‘those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.’
Let me ask: what might that look like?
Perhaps something like this: The 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards in the American colonies was the minister of a church of which his grandfather had previously been the Rector. Now we would perhaps have thought that with that kind of pedigree and with such an outstanding record of God’s goodness through his ministry, then towards the end of his life everything would have finished on a note of unmistakable triumph. Well, we would be wrong. After 22 years of faithful Gospel ministry, his congregation finally decided to kick him out for nothing more than he insisted that those who took Holy Communion should at least be professing Christians. That was just too much for some of the more prominent members of the town. Together with his wife, and seven children, he was forced out with nowhere to go. This was ‘Last of the Mohicans’ country for those of you who have seen the film. Eventually he did manage to get a position teaching a handful of Red Indians the Christian faith in a remote mission station. And just when the corner of misfortune seemed to have been turned and he was offered the post of Principal of Princeton, he died at the age of 54 from a smallpox vaccination that went horribly wrong. His grieving widow, Sarah, then wrote down these words: ‘What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had my husband for so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart.’ That is committing yourself to your faithful creator and continuing to do good. Let us pray.